That’s right — the burning human rights problem for the Trump administration is not that the president encouraged the construction of concentration camps for religious minorities in China, or that he legitimizes murderous dictators such as Kim Jong Un. It’s not Trump’s flagrant violation of the laws protecting refugees fleeing persecution, or that he feels a special kinship with the “very fine people” chanting “Jews will not replace us.” And it’s certainly not that black Americans are dying at the hands of police in a criminal justice system rife with institutional racism.
No, it’s that too many “subgroups” — read, women, LGBTQ people, black people, poor people, native peoples — are demanding rights, including (gasp) in “domestic political discourse.” America’s rights tradition is under attack, Pompeo claimed, by people who have forgotten a fundamental truth: “America is special. America is good.”
Pompeo has suggested that the commission’s job is simply one of “clarification.” But while he pines for the post-World War II clarity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pompeo’s puzzlement makes one wonder whether he’s ever actually read the document. The answers are all right there; you don’t need a special commission to find them.
Born out of the crucible of WWII and the Holocaust, the declaration asserts in its opening lines the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights” of all humans. In a powerful preamble and 30 concise articles, it enumerates these “inalienable rights,” making clear that all of them — civil and political but also economic, social and cultural — are interrelated and must be treated as indivisible in order to fulfill the promise of human dignity. It is a simple and radical document — a Magna Carta for all humankind.
So what, then, is the Pompeo commission really about? Pompeo’s speech yesterday left little doubt. Contrary to the declaration’s premise that the rights it enumerates are interdependent, Pompeo construes his commission’s report as endorsing a sort of human rights cafeteria plan, in which “property rights and religious liberty” are the truly unalienable rights, while others are ad hoc (and therefore, presumably, alienable). Pompeo relies on the commission’s findings as cover to assert what he wanted from the beginning: a defense of the view that freedom of religion trumps other rights. The not-so-subtle intent here is to shore up the president’s waning support among the white Catholic and evangelical Christian Americans who make up his political base.
Though Pompeo promised “fresh thinking” on human rights, his tactic — elevating some rights above others on a claim of cultural context — is sadly familiar. Notorious human rights violators throughout history and around the world have used “re-examining” human rights as a pretext for denying rights to people in disfavored groups. The Chinese government advocates human rights with “Chinese characteristics” to justify denying basic civil and political rights to its citizens, particularly to Uighurs. Authoritarian governments such as those in Russia and Saudi Arabia justify discrimination against LGBTQ people and women as a defense of “traditional values.”
While Pompeo rightly suggests that the U.S. commitment to human rights at home “has provided a beacon of hope for men and woman abroad pursuing their own liberties,” his approach will not help rights defenders in places such as Iran and China. Rather, his insistence on redefining and reexamining universal human rights only strengthens the hand of governments that seek to silence human rights advocates by claiming authority to reinterpret rights in their own “distinctive” way or by dismissing or discrediting universal rights as an “American” invention.
What the global human rights movement needs right now is for the United States to fully embrace the universality and indivisibility of human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration, provide a full-throated defense of human rights abroad and engage in an honest effort to address deep and persistent rights violations at home. It’s clear that Pompeo has no intention of leading such an effort; to the contrary, he is actively undermining it. To the extent that he tries to leverage the commission’s report as cover for his campaign to “prioritize” freedom of religion over other universal rights, American officials — and Congress, in particular — must be prepared to push back.
The good news is, no matter what governments say or do to “reinterpret” human rights, rights belong to people, not to governments. And, ultimately, people will demand that they be respected. For evidence of that right now, one need only look to the streets of the United States.